SCOUTING REPORT: Paying to Play
by Mark Kayser
The cost-benefits (or not) of hiring a tag application service.
Like a lyric in the mind-numbing Britney Spears song, “Oops! I Did It Again,” I was once again up against the elk application deadline for Montana, one of my favorite states to hunt elk. License procrastination is in my nature. I do it because my fall schedule often changes at the whim of a TV producer, but I also harbor hidden commitment issues. The two combine for procrastination anxieties. Scrambling, I flipped a coin. Did I want to stick to my usual Montana archery season gamble or go for an even more difficult-to-draw firearm tag? I blame myself for putting license applications on the back burner of the camp stove, but in all honesty there’s more to the deferment debacle than my failure to launch. There’s simply a lot going on in life that pushes licensing and other hunting duties to the rear of the line. Take a number, but don’t ditch the duty if you wish to hunt elk.
Despite promises to save you more time and to streamline life, modern technology simply stacks more obligations into an already jam-packed schedule. Consider your smartphone. A recent survey by Good Technology confirmed that 80 percent of 1,000 American workers surveyed “spend time checking emails and answering calls after hours.” According to the poll, that added workload tallies seven extra hours each week. Look at it this way, we add an extra work day every week thanks to modern technology.
We squeeze a lot into life, and burning precious hours plowing through maps and regs may not be your kid’s idea of family time. You have options, though. You can do it all yourself or you can turn over the reins and let a number of hunt planning businesses apply for you. They can even coordinate your hunt. In either instance, you need to be diligent. The odds for drawing premium tags are about as good as our country eliminating its debt. In Arizona some units have a mere 1 percent chance of success. This article isn’t meant to be a plug for tag services. I’m simply throwing out the pros and cons, so you can decide for yourself.
Do It Yourself
If you plan on doing it all yourself, you need to decide how much time you can allocate to state regs. Elk hunting is an addiction, and if you’ve ignored the 12-step program then you likely want to hunt elk as much as possible. That means you probably are looking at elk-hunting opportunities beyond your state borders. If you live in an elkless state you’re likely perusing options across the country. Currently, you can hunt from coast to coast, as elk restoration and habitat conservation continue to expand your opportunities. Plus, western herds continue to pioneer into nontraditional areas despite some setbacks from predators in traditional regions like the Greater Yellowstone.
Applying for every elk hunting opportunity in every state could mean well over a dozen applications. It could also mean applying for a handful of new favorites like Pennsylvania, which has been kicking out monster bulls with consistency in recent years.
For me, it takes a minimum of one to two hours just to research potential units in one state. I then add another hour or two to understand the state’s application process. Add in another hour of application time filling out forms and your surplus hours are slipping away. And once you’re done, ask yourself how many more states you want to sift through—and how many you can afford.
Once you decide how many states you’d like to apply to, note all application deadlines. Do this early. Wyoming has a nonresident deadline in January and many states wrap up applications before the spring equinox. It pays to note these crux dates on your computer calendar with red flags and alarms.
As you become familiar with the application system of each state, the process grows a little easier year after year, but the beginning learning curve can test your tolerance of government bureaucracy. Some elk applications look like IRS tax forms. I’d suggest you apply to one state the first year. Then apply to that same state plus another the next year and so on.
Like the IRS, most states want your money. They are going to require payment to apply. As a resident you may get away with a fee of less than $75 for a license, but if you’re a nonresident get ready to shell out big bucks. Utah, for example, makes it mandatory to purchase a nonrefundable $65 general hunting license just to apply. They’re not alone. Most states also make you pay up front. If unsuccessful they refund your money, but your bank account will be skinnier for a month or more as the application process progresses. Fortunately there’s a trend afoot where the states take your credit card information and only charge you if the cherries line up after the pull of the handle. In either case, you need to have some money set aside in case you do win the elk license lottery.
The Tag Service
Speaking of money, help is available if you have a savings account dedicated to hunting. Consider application services like those offered by Cabela’s TAGS, the Huntin’ Fool or other consultants and booking services offering similar assistance in this pay-for-application atmosphere. Who uses these services? Eric Pawlak, manager for Cabela’s Trophy Application and Guide Service (TAGS), says most clientele are serious hunters.
“It seems like the Cabela’s TAGS customer is a super engaged hunter,” says Pawlak. “To go through the process of calling me, you are already a hardcore hunter and playing the game. The income level is all over the board. This isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most customers. They are setting up a portfolio for the next 10 years of hunting. It’s all about acquiring the points.”
What can you expect for your payment? For one, time. It all starts with a consultation meeting to save you the time of research and applying. You tell them if you’re looking for a Boone & Crockett elk or just an opportunity to hunt (most of the time, those two don’t go hand-in-hand). Where would you like to hunt? When? You give them a budget along with your physical abilities and they begin the legwork toward your hunting goal. This is a key selling point of application services. Consultants advise you on the best units for trophies, the best units for license draws and the process to build bonus points toward your goals. Prices begin at $50 per species and the sky is the limit depending on the price and difficulty of drawing a particular license, plus how many states and species you wish to add to your shopping cart.
Some businesses float or finance your license fee, while others ask for your credit card information. Cabela’s TAGS bankrolls your application and license fee. If you don’t draw, you are just responsible for the state application fee and their service charge. Paying for six to eight license fees up front can be daunting. Sure you get a refund if you don’t draw, but not many of us have $3,000 or more sitting around to give to states for months at a time while waiting for license draw results, especially if you add costly species such as sheep and mountain goats.
You also get confidence in an application free of mistakes. Many states still toss out applications with errors. Game over. Wyoming makes it a point to sort out applications with errors and track down hunters for corrections, but Pawlak points out that you can simply transpose one number and a bull tag suddenly could become a cow-only tag, allowing the application to breeze right through for high success and wiping out your precious preference points. Application services put in place a system of checks and re-checks to minimize such errors.
If you draw the license, the services don’t end there. Most consultants can team you up with a qualified outfitter, suggest drop-camp options and answer questions about particular units. Huntin’ Fool provides you with contact information from past clients so you can plan a DIY hunt with advice from their other members. As you form a relationship with an application service, the annual allotment of time also decreases. Your consultant understands your objectives and keeps on track to apply for the units to meet your goals. Previous year’s consulting information may be relative for a year or more, but trophy potential and herd densities fluctuate, so research needs to be done annually, something an application service offers.
A huge bonus that Cabela’s TAGS offers is providing their services free to any child 18 years old or younger of a paying adult. Not only does this save money and time, but many youth hunts boast far higher success for drawing premiere hunts.
“Time is money,” as they say. Investing the time to aggressively apply for premium units will undoubtedly take time away from other activities, whether family or career. Many of us pay for financial advice, it may make every bit as much sense to pay for hunting advice. After all, who doesn’t want to get in the top draws every time and on time?
When the new year arrives, you’ll need to begin the elk application race. Luck has a lot to do with winning, but to be able to pull the handle you first have to drop a quarter into the application slot. And whether you do it yourself or hire a service, it never hurts to have a rabbit’s foot around.
Wyoming-based writer Mark Kayser lives at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains with his wife Sharon and children, Cole and Katelyn. He is a frequent contributor to Bugle.